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  1. ITV Report

Barnard Castle's real life Saving Private Ryan

Four of the Smith brothers who lost their lives in battle Photo: Smith family

During the first world war hardly a family was left untouched by tragedy, but one County Durham mother lost more than most in the defence of this country.

Margaret Smith lost five sons then, in a story which echoes the Hollywood movie Saving Private Ryan, a desperate battle began to find her only surviving child and bring him home before the Great War took his life too.

All six of John and Margaret's sons joined the war effort Credit: John and Margaret Smith

Private Robert Smith, of the Durham Light Infantry, died on September 19, 1916, aged 22.

Corporal George Smith was killed in action in November 1916, aged 26.

In 1917 Private Frederick Smith, aged 21, and eldest son John, 37, were killed in action.

Alfred, 30, was the last to fall, in August 1918.

No photo has been found of Robert Smith. As the first of the sons to die it may be that this picture was taken after his death.

John, Alfred, Frederick and George Smith Credit: Smith family

Don't have boys because they only become cannon fodder.

– Margaret Smith was known to say this throughout her life

As news of the death of son after son after son was sent home to Barnard Castle, the loss was felt throughout the small market town. So much so that the local vicar's wife, Mrs Bircham, felt compelled to help and to help she went right to the very top. She wrote to Queen Mary, the wife of King George V.

Margaret Smith received a letter back:

I am commanded by the Queen to thank you for your letter of the 16th instant and to request you to be good enough to convey to Mr and Mrs Smith of Bridgegate, Barnard Castle, an expression of Her Majesty’s deep sympathy with them in the sad losses they have sustained by the death of their five sons.

‘The Queen has caused Mr and Mrs Smith’s request concerning their youngest son to be forwarded for consideration of the war authorities.

‘I am yours truly, Edward Wallington, Private Secretary to Her Majesty the Queen.

– Letter received by Margaret Smith

Wilf Smith was found and brought home.

This rare royal intervention means his family live on in Barnard Castle and they are able to remember the five brothers who gave their lives.

If Queen Mary hadn't pardoned him, we wouldn't be here, so she's done some good. We wouldn't be here today to tell this tale. It's just amazing to thing that's my family.

– Amanda Harrison, Wilf Smith's Granddaughter

The Smith brothers are remembered on the war memorial at Bowes Museum and 100 years after the first boy fell a ceremony has been held to commemorate the family's sacrifice.

So unusual and poignant is the Smith family story that it has been studied by school children in Rotherham. Their teacher has written a song telling the brother's story to celebrate the centenary of their deaths.

Sales of the song are being donated to Help for Heroes, so this family's loss one hundred years ago is now helping soldiers facing hardship today.

The Smith family made a huge sacrifice to the war effort but thanks to the Queen's intervention Wilf's family live on and through them and their story, the five lost brothers won't be forgotten.

Watch Julia Barthram's report: